Saturday, March 27, 2010

Legal Matters: Evidence (1)

The means by which the truth or untruth of any relevant fact is established in the trial of an action at law. What is and what is not legal evidence is determined primarily by the pleadings in the action. The early common-law system of pleading was so devised as to narrow down all matters of dispute between the plaintiff and defendant to a single issue of law or fact.

If the issue was one of law, a question was raised for the court only; but if the issue was one of fact, a question was raised for determination by a common-law jury, after a trial in which evidence was introduced on the one side to prove the alleged fact, and on the other to disprove it. The whole system presupposed, on the part of the jury, inability to consider more than one issue of fact at a time, and in the consideration of that one issue, to some extent, lack of capacity to give to different classes of logically relevant evidence their proper weight. It is to the historical development of the jury system, therefore, that many rules of the law of evidence may be attributed, which now seem to be unwarranted in logic and unsuited to the times.

Modern systems of pleading permit the raising of numerous issues of fact, and have thus imposed on the jury duties requiring a higher standard of intelligence than under the ancient system. The rules of evidence, however, partly because they have been found to be practically sufficient, and partly because of the necessity of fixed and definite rules in the branch of the law, have not undergone a corresponding change, and many matters of evidence logically relevant and of considerable probative force are still not legally admissible evidence because of their supposed tendency to 'confuse and mislead the jury.'

1. MUST BE RELEVANT: The rule of first importance in the law of evidence is that it must be relevant in order to be legally admissible. Relevancy depends directly or indirectly on the issue raised by the pleadings. Thus, evidence of a fact may be relevant because it tends directly or indirectly to prove or disprove the fact in issue that is affirmed by one side and denied by the other; or the evidence may be relevant because it tends to prove or disprove some matter of evidence already introduced by the other side for the purpose of proving or disproving the issue raised by the pleadings. But, as has been pointed out, all logically relevant evidence is not legal evidence. Thus evidence which is logically relevant may not be legally admissible because:

(a) Its relevancy is slight or remote. Thus evidence that the defendant was insolvent at a certain time is not admissible to prove that he borrowed money of the plaintiff at that time.

(b) The evidence is of collateral transactions, or (as is sometimes said) res inter alios acta. Thus, in an action to recover damages for negligence it is not permissible to show that the defendant was negligent toward others than the plaintiff, or on trial of a defendant for steal, that he stole from others. The general rule is, however, subject to many limitations and modifications more or less arbitrary. Thus it is permissible to show, in an action of tort, brought to recover for injuries caused by a defective appliance belonging to the defendant, that others were injured by it in a similar manner, and generally, value of land may be shown by proving the selling price of other land similarly situated.

A full consideration of these limitations and modifications is not within the scope of this article. So far, however, as they may be said to rest on any settled principle, their extent now depends upon, whether there is other more available and satisfactory evidence, and to some extent upon the discretion of the trial judge. The character of a party to a civil action is not regarded as relevant, and is, therefore, not the subject of evidence, unless the character is directly put in issue by the pleadings, as in an action for libel. In a criminal trial, however, the defendant may, if he so elects, introduce evidence of his character, which evidence the prosecution may then rebut.

To be continued: Evidence (2)

Bibliography: From my collection of Books: The New International Encyclopedia 1902-1905 Dodd, Mead and Company-New York
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